The wound is fresh for the New Orleans Saints, as well it should be.
The team believed it possessed the ingredients for a run to the Super Bowl; more, players believed theirs was the best team in the NFL. So, falling short of the goal – losing 26-20 in overtime to Minnesota, in their NFC Wild Card game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – obviously was a devastating blow to a team that has won 11, 13 and 13 regular-season games the last three seasons.
But the disappointment totally can't, and shouldn't, mask the myriad successes the Saints (13-4) achieved in the 2019 season, during which NFL records were broken, standout performers were uncovered and New Orleans won a third consecutive NFC South Division title, the first time in franchise history the team has won three straight division championships.
Start at the top with quarterback Drew Brees, the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and, now, the NFL's new all-time leader in touchdown passes, with 547. He threw the record breaker, No. 540, to tight end Josh Hill on "Monday Night Football" against the Colts in a 34-7 victory. Despite missing five games after tearing a ligament in his right thumb, Brees completed 74.3 percent of his passes for 2,979 yards and 27 touchdowns, with four interceptions.
Receiver Michael Thomas also took over another spot in the league's record book. His 149 receptions established a single-season record, and he accounted for 1,725 yards (a franchise single-season record) and nine touchdowns.
Brees, Thomas and tight end Jared Cook (43 catches for 705 yards and nine touchdowns) led an offense that warmed to the task as the season progressed. The Saints finished tied for third in scoring (28.6 points per game) and ninth in total offense (373.9 yards per game), and averaged 40 points per game in December, when Brees threw 15 touchdowns and no interceptions, and the team posted a 3-1 record.
And New Orleans repeatedly displayed that it had the best quarterback room in the NFL. In Brees' absence, the Saints were 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater as the starting quarterback. Bridgewater completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 1,384 yards and nine touchdowns, with two interceptions, and became a bike-riding, children's-book-selling, golden-smiling cult hero in New Orleans.
Taysom Hill continued adding to the most diverse portfolio in the league, a No. 3 quarterback who also plays special teams, tight end and wide receiver. Hill deflected a punt on special teams, nearly blocked two or three more, passed for 55 yards on three completions, caught 19 passes for 234 yards and six touchdowns, and ran 27 times for 156 yards and a touchdown during the regular season.
On defense, end Cam Jordan had a career-high 15.5 sacks, 1.5 short of tying the team's single-season record. And with 87 career sacks, he now sits second on the franchise all-time list behind Rickey Jackson's 115.
Linebacker Demario Davis continued his stellar play, leading the Saints in tackles (111) for the second straight year, and adding four sacks, an interception and 12 passes defensed. And safety Vonn Bellcompiled his best NFL season despite missing three games with a knee injury: five fumble recoveries (second-highest single-season total in franchise history), two forced fumbles, an interception, five passes defensed, 1.5 sacks and 89 tackles.
The Saints' defense held four opponents – Dallas, Jacksonville, Arizona and Indianapolis – to 10 points or less and finished 11th in total defense (331.1 yards per game allowed) and 13th in scoring defense (21.3 points allowed).
Davis was named first-team All-Pro, the first time he's been named to the team, and Jordan (second-team) became a three-time All-Pro. Jordan and cornerback Marshon Lattimore are Pro Bowlers.
Kicker Wil Lutz made walk-off game-winning field goals against Houston (30-28) and Carolina (34-31), kicked four field goals in victories over Dallas (12-10) and Atlanta (26-18), and made 32 field goals (a franchise single-season record) in 36 attempts.
Rookie returner Deonte Harty arguably was the steal of the NFL's 2019 rookie class. Harris, undrafted, won the job as the Saints' returner and took back a punt 53 yards for a touchdown against Seattle in a road victory, the first score of the first game the Saints played without Brees. Harris returned 36 punts for 338 yards – both league-leading numbers – and 24 kickoffs for 644 yards.
Harris and Gray, who was an undrafted rookie in 2018, were named All-Pro, and Harris and Lutz are Pro Bowlers.
And Harris was a prominent member of the Saints' formidable rookie class. Second-round pick Erik McCoy started at center and played all but six offensive snaps, fourth-round pick C.J. Gardner-Johnson was an immediate fit in the secondary and started several games at safety, and undrafted tackle Shy Tuttle played his way onto the 53-man roster and into the rotation from the beginning of the season.
The Saints didn't make a Super Bowl run, and an impressive run through the regular season won't nullify that. But New Orleans posted success stories in many other areas through the season, individually and collectively.